On the Intelligent Form by James Caridi-Doyle

A robot hand

Posted in 2023 The Gnovis Blog  |  Tagged , , , ,

By James Caridi-Doyle

By his own admission in a 1958 lecture, Theodor Adorno’s conception of the method of dialectics butts heads with the post-Enlightenment ideal of positivism,1 which often aims to discard the speculative approaches of metaphysics in favor of the empiric and rational2. This positivistic abandonment of metaphysical thought is one that can be intuitively felt and understood by many of us, as the triumph of reason over speculation seems to have fully seeped into our epistemic processes and norms. Reading Adorno’s words, though, I wonder in which ways borrowed metaphysical framings might lend a novel approach to some of the questions of today and whether the dialectical line of inquiry might provide some useful insights if we take a step back to look at an ancient source. 

Throughout the lecture, Adorno describes dialectics as an extension of Plato’s earlier definition of the term, stating that Plato and Aristotle used dialectics to “[frame] our concepts in accordance with nature so that these concepts might properly express what it is they grasp.”3 Following this line of reasoning, dialectics is an iterative beast, a method that “strives to not stand still” and instead asserts that, because we cannot simply know whether or not the logical order we prescribe to things is that which they inherently possess, we must aim to update our prescribed “conceptual order by reference to the being of the object themselves.”4 This phrasing hints further towards some of Plato’s thought that is not as explicitly mentioned by Adorno here. 

In the dialogues of Phaedo, Plato first brings life to his Theory of Forms, which ultimately breaks up concepts of ontology into the categories of Forms and of particulars.5 By this division, the Forms are a collection of metaphysical concepts that are what they are “in virtue of themselves.” Particulars, instead, are rough approximations of one or a collection of Forms.6 Through the Theory of Forms and dialectics, we can see echoes of the stance that objects and ideas have some nature in and of themselves, a nature that we must walk towards and fluidly, recursively build an understanding of as we go.

This is a fruitful lens to adopt when approaching one of the most prominent philosophical questions of science-fiction media today: what does it mean to be a human being at the precipice of artificial intelligence? Looking at the state of modern artificial intelligence technology – prototypes in the grander scheme of things – one might get the Cynical kick of Diogenes holding a chicken, unmasking the false humanity of a Silicon Valley tech giant’s dreams. The questions that Adorno and Plato bring forward, though, are insightful if we permit ourselves to picture a world in which an artificial intelligence truly rivals that of humans. 

The 2014 film Ex Machina traces these philosophical boundaries, its story following an intelligent machine that faces abuse at the hands of a creator who deems it, despite what clues might otherwise point to, wholly inhuman.7 In Ex Machina, we see a struggle spin outwards from a central point of knowledge: qualities which would have at one point fallen solely within what might be described as the prescriptive domain of the human Form have begun to fall outside of that domain. When we are presented, through the film, with a robot that demonstrably moves like a human, looks like a human, exhibits the consciousness of a human, and in the very abstract sense feels like a human, we are left to wonder what exactly defines us in a world that holds such possibilities. Here, we begin to see some overlapping space in the Venn diagram of shared attributes among our particulars, and we are left to speculate about the nature of our Form. 

Approaching this from a strictly empirical perspective, we know that robots are not human beings, despite the level of advanced artificial intelligence they might one day possess. Simply put, we are constructed in different ways, composed of different materials – we are much fleshier, and they are a lot more durable. That being said, in approaching Ex Machina, we need to ask ourselves if that strictly empirical perspective is all that matters or whether we might want to humor a less-positivistic approach. Suppose we allow ourselves to see the film through the metaphysical lens encouraged by dialectic inquiry. In such a case, we can begin to ask ourselves whether we might just be a mere particular of the abstract Form of intelligence – and whether a smart enough robot might be able to say the same.


  1. Adorno, Theodor. “Lecture 1: 8 May 1958.” In Adorno: An Introduction to Dialectics, edited by Christoph Ziermann. Polity Press, 2017.
  2. Feigl, H.. “positivism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, December 26, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/positivism.
  3. Adorno, Theodor. “Lecture 1: 8 May 1958.” In Adorno: An Introduction to Dialectics, edited by Christoph Ziermann. Polity Press, 2017. 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Silverman, Allan. “Plato’s Middle Period Metaphysics and Epistemology.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta and Uri Nodelman, Fall 2022. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University, 2022. https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2022/entries/plato-metaphysics/.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ex Machina. Drama, Sci-Fi, Thriller. A24, Universal Pictures, Film4, 2015.